They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
This story from Mark is steeped in metaphors and symbolism. It is a story of Jesus critique and nonviolent direct action against the powers, this time the powers of Rome.
Symbols of the Unclean
Mark tells us that the man comes from the tombs and that there is a herd of pigs present for this episode. Both of these are unclean for the Jewish people. Not only are Jesus and the disciples on the other side, they are in unclean space and their ritual purity is threatened. The boundaries of Jesus’ ministry are being pushed into new space.
Mark uses words in this story that allude to military engagement. Jesus is confronting the powers of a military state, the ultimate power of Rome.
“In 5:9 Jesus wrests from this powerful demonic horde its name: Legion. A Latinism, this term had only one meaning in Mark’s social world: a division of Roman soldiers. Alerted by this clue, we discover that the rest of the story is filled with military imagery. The term used for ‘herd’ (agele, 5:11) - inappropriate for pigs, who do not travel in herds - often was used to refer to a band of military recruits (Derrett, 1979:5). Derrett also points out that the phrase ‘dismissed them’ (epetrepsen - 5:13: translated as “he gave them permission in the NRSV) connotes a military command, and the pigs charge (ormesen - 5:13: translated as ‘rush’ in the NRSV) into the lake suggests troops rushing into battle (Myers, 191).”
These two themes Mark the narrative. Jesus encounters someone in need in a place of death and militarized destruction and responds by giving new life to the demoniac.
Nonviolent, Direct Action
In our symbolic journey through Mark’s story of Jesus, and an understanding that Jesus is confronting the fallen powers of the world, this is the moment when Jesus takes on the power of Rome. Here Jesus sets the kingdom of God over and against the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom of God brings true peace into the world through the life-giving power of Jesus. The kingdom of Rome orchestrates peace through violence and domination. Jesus has come to confront this fallen power and break its strangle hold on the world.
In this encounter we can understand the demoniac as a person who has internalized the military occupation of the empire of Rome - “The demoniac represents collective anxiety over Roman imperialism (Myers, 193).” This militarized occupation has captured him, possessing his mind and body. He lives in a state of metaphorical death, making his home among the tombs.
The demoniac knows Jesus, as do the other demons in Mark’s story, they know that he holds the power to defeat them. Jesus casts out the “legion” - the metaphorical militarized power of the Roman fighting force. He drives them into a herd of pigs who rush over a cliff and into the sea. “Enemy soldiers being swallowed by hostile waters of course brings to mind the narrative of Israel’s liberation from Egypt (Exodus 14), as Moses victory hymn sings: ‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army Yahweh cast into the sea; his elite officers are sunk in the Red Sea (Ex. 15:4)’ (Myers, 191).”
Jesus demonstrates power even over the greatest fighting for of his time. Again it is important to take note of the nonviolent means Jesus uses in his encounter. He does not rise up in violent revolution, he confronts the system that holds people in a state of death: in this moment the power of militarized occupation.
Jesus continues to demonstrate his power to give life in the face of death, pointing to the true power of the kingdom of God.
Questions for Modern Day Disciples
- What holds us captive?
- How do we support/critique a society that is “possessed” by military dominance?
- How do we model a nonviolent way of life in a society that promotes violence?
These are tough but important questions for our time and place.
Next week we continue with the second half of chapter five.